|Me at 18 in 1970|
For a very long time, I have included the standard assignment of a memoir, 1-2 pages from all of my students each semester. It has to include a picture of the author, which has gotten easier over the years. In the old days before cell phone photos, I would permit them to do portraits of themselves, to use photos of their children or themselves as children, video self-portraits, and photocopies of their student ID. Actually I still permit all these other ways of supplying an image. Because I find that it isn’t the likeness of the student that imprints their identity on my brain. It’s the process. Indeed, I am often amused by how little the photos of the students look like them.
The initial reason for the assignment was to engrave upon my consciousness who the person was for at least the duration of the semester but over the years it has become so much more. Since I don’t grade the assignment or return it, I organize them alphabetically and use them to take attendance in the beginning. I have found that many students are inclined to share vital information with me at a very early stage in our relationship. Of course some students blow it off but the deep ones almost never do. It can be a way to discover their talents for music, art, dance or the sciences that might never emerge, given that the class is in English. I then relish the opportunity to choose to incorporate these skills into the teaching to make it more interesting to this particular student. Something that is interesting to one student may be of interest to another. Also, a happy student spreads the word and sends you other happy students. So then I get special students who are sent to me by special students I have had in the past.
The fact that I now do everything on blackboard has made it much easier for me to respond individually to the autobiographies. Finally, if I have a student who is either a gifted writer or has a particular problem with writing in English, I find out immediately. Teaching at a place like City College, with many poor and immigrant students, I am always astonished by how eager they are to share their journey with me. They are invariably proud and open regarding the obstacles they have overcome. They are thoughtful about the process of their education, their childhood dreams versus the reality of their young adulthood. At this stage in their lives, themselves is probably their strongest subject, so why not give them a chance to shine. .
A year or two ago I got drawn back into teaching memoir. At that point, I added a brief memoir of my own, focused on my educational experience since I, too, had attended City College as an undergraduate, to provide students with an example of what one might do, although I emphasize that any kind of statement about themselves which extends to at least a half a page will be acceptable. I give them 15 points for this assignment, no exceptions. Just looking over this piece of writing in preparation for the fall, I am aware that although I tell them not to model my essay, I can see that it has had an impact. So, I decided to tweak this brief essay and include it here in honor of the last semester I expect to be teaching at City College.